First it was David Cameron, now Tony Blair has entered the fray. He told journalists at a press gallery lunch this week that he stood ready and willing to come to the aid of Better Together’s fight to keep Scotland in the UK. All we need is for Margaret Thatcher to come out of retirement to help save Britain and we’d have the set. The Scottish Nationalists are jubilant. ‘Christmas has come early”, said Kenneth Gibson MSP. In Nationalist demonology, there are no blacker figures than these with which to scare the Scottish voters.
But I’m not sure. David Cameron is regarded as a benign irrelevance, Thatcher is ancient history to Scots under forty, and even Tony Blair is not the hate figure he was. In fact, he was never quite the hate figure he was said to be. There’s little polling evidence that Scots had any particular loathing for the former Labour prime minister, who of course delivered the Scottish parliament after the 1997 referendum. One episode in particular testifies to the contrary.
It was at the height of the Keep the Clause row in 2000. Cardinal Winning and Brian Souter had staged their private referendum to show that Scots didn’t want to lose Section 2a, which outlawed the teaching of homosexuality in schools. The late Donald Dewar was at sixes and sevens; the cabinet was split; the press were in revolt. Church figures were warning about homosexual role-playing being introduced to Scottish classrooms. UK commentators suggested that devolution had unleashed a latent homophobia in Scottish society.
Then, Tony Blair made a speech at the Scottish Labour Conference in Edinburgh in March 2000 in which he ridiculed the alarmism of the Keep the Clausers. “Kids are going to be force-fed gay sex education?”, he said referring to the adverts being posted across Scotland. “And it’s Donald who’s doing it? What utter nonsense”. And with that the panic subsided. I can’t recall any single speech which has had such a direct impact on public debate as that one. Blair clearly carried conviction and people trusted him – rather more than his Scottish Labour counterparts. The Scottish Executive – as it then was – made some noises about supporting the family in the bill, the clause was dropped, and the issue duly died.
Of course, this was before the Iraq war, which destroyed Tony Blair’s credibility. For many Scottish intellectuals Blair remains the Unforgiven, though memory of the war is rapidly fading into history for most Scots. Blair is probably more widely remembered here for the struggle with Gordon Brown, his embittered rival for the Labour leadership. In the years before Blair’s resignation in June 2007, there was a widespread feeling in Scotland that, in some way, the then Labour Chancellor was more in tune with Scottish sensibilities. It was assumed, without a great deal of evidence, that he was less “New Labour” than Tony Blair, and that his attitudes to issues like the market reforms in the National Health Service was more true to Labour values. This was largely wishful thinking.
It soon became clear that Gordon Brown was as much New Labour as Blair, as his speeches praising the City of London and his support for university tuition fees should have made clear. Brown turned out to be a massive disappointment to those hoping for a Labour revival in Scotland, and issues like the abolition of the ten pence tax band caused widespread resentment. Nevertheless, it didn’t prevent a million Scots voting Labour in the 2010 general election in which the SNP were left with only six seats against Labour’s forty one. It wasn’t Tony Blair or Gordon Brown who destroyed the Scottish Labour Party in the 20ll Holyrood elections – that was entirely their own work.
So, the jury is out on Tony Blair as political player in the 2014 referendum campaign. He is certainly not in the same league of infamy as Margaret Thatcher, who represented something altogether different: the destruction of Scottish industrial culture. Tony Blair, was of course born in Edinburgh and educated at Fettes, which gives him as much right as anyone to involve himself in the debate. He is unlikely to be called a “colonialist” interloper by Alasdair Gray – though the novelist and artist would have plenty of other unpleasant things to say about him. So, the yes campaign would probably be well advised not to target Tony Blair personally, but to use his presence in Scotland to raise the kind of issues that they believe will win the referendum.
The Yes campaign will argue that the only way to defend the kind of distinctive policy agenda that has emerged in Scotland over the last decade of devolution is to “lock it in” by opting for independence. The abolition of university tuition fees, the introduction of free care for the elderly, the removal of prescription charges etc – what Alex Salmond calls “the social wage” – were all policies that Tony Blair explicitly rejected. Similarly, opposition to Trident, the renewal of which was driven through byTony Blair in the dog days of his tenure in Number Ten. The Nationalists are convinced that these are popular policies in Scotland and they can also be confident that Tony Blair will attack them vigorously. .
Mind you, it doesn’t require the second coming of Tony Blair to oppose progressive universalism. The Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, has provided the SNP with what they regard as another early Christmas gift by suggesting, in a speech this week, that restoring university tuition fees is her top priority after her year in office. She really is playing for high stakes, refusing to back down on her declaration of war against what she calls the “something for nothing” society in Scotland. She wins nothing but praise from Conservative MSPs and commentators,including David Cameron who echoed her words at PMQs yesterday.
But her own party, and in particular its former leaders like Henry McLeish, have reacted with an icy silence. Perhaps she knows something we don’t. In this respect at least, the spirit of New Labour lives on in the Scottish party. Who needs Tony Blair?